By Steve Holland and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Benghazi is back.
The controversy over the deadly 2012 attack in the Libyan city has resurfaced with Republicans accusing the White House of creating a political smokescreen in the aftermath of Benghazi to protect President Barack Obama's re-election.
Republicans hope to gain election-year traction on the issue, but could face a voter backlash if they push it too hard. Similarly, Democrats cannot afford to dismiss questions about an attack in which four Americans were killed.
Until a 2012 email on Benghazi from top Obama foreign policy aide Ben Rhodes surfaced last week, the events surrounding the attacks on a U.S. compound in Benghazi had largely faded from media attention. The email breathed new life into the controversy because it suggested a White House effort to protect Obama from political damage.
This week, House Speaker John Boehner appointed South Carolina Republican Representative Trey Gowdy to chair a select committee that will investigate the controversy again. Hearings are to start later this month. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry has been subpoenaed to testify about Benghazi before a separate House committee on May 21.
The new probe comes at a difficult time for Democrats, who are fighting to hang on to control of the U.S. Senate in the November 4 congressional elections. They can ill afford to be seen hindering a congressional investigation unless they can prove it is politically motivated.
Democrats say Benghazi is a settled issue with established facts: Armed militants attacked a U.S. facility in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, killing U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
They point out that there have already been seven congressional investigations into the events surrounding the Benghazi attacks, with eight subpoenas, 13 hearings, 50 briefings, hundreds of hours of transcribed interviews and the release of 25,000 pages of documents.
"This is a conspiracy theory in search of a conspiracy," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters this week.
In a potential flashpoint to the proceedings, the White House is insisting that the Obama administration will only cooperate with "legitimate" oversight. This could mean the Obama administration would resist Republican demands for testimony from key actors in the drama, such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi's insistence that Boehner's select committee have equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans as members was an indication that should Boehner refuse, House Democrats could boycott the proceedings. Typically the majority party in the House, in this case the Republicans, would have more members.
The new Benghazi probe offers a test for the new White House counsel, Neil Eggleston, who was picked in part because of his experience in dealing with the type of congressional investigations that tend to turn up in a president's second term. He served in a similar role in Bill Clinton's White House.
By focusing on Benghazi, Republicans risk appearing opportunistic and feeding Democratic accusations that they lack a governing agenda.
Republicans insist their interest in Benghazi is not driven by politics but by a search for the truth about what they see as a September 11-style terrorist attack. They believe White House aides sought to protect Obama's image as tough on terrorism during his re-election battle.
"The events of what happened may be complicated, but that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about an effort to direct and control the narrative, which they deny that they did," said Republican strategist Stuart Stevens, who was presidential nominee Mitt Romney's top adviser in 2012.
But Republican political officials say Benghazi is a subject of intense interest for the party's conservative base of support, who are likely voters in November.
"We're going to use every opportunity we can to highlight it," said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski.
Republicans also see the chance to chip away at the image of Hillary Clinton, the potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidate who was secretary of state when Benghazi occurred.
One unanswered question is why the Rhodes email was not released in the deluge of documents the administration put forth a year ago in response to congressional inquiries.
The Rhodes email contained talking points for Susan Rice, who was then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to make during a round of Sunday television news shows days after the September 11, 2012, Benghazi attacks.
Rhodes said that among other points, Rice should talk about the protests that were rocking the Muslim world at the time, and "to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy."
The reference is to an anti-Muslim video that had upset Muslims. Republicans say the email proves the White House was worried about protecting Obama's image.
White House officials say it was a simple list of points Rice should make in preparing her for the Sunday shows, the type of planning they would do for any senior official appearing on the closely watched programs.
The officials said the Rhodes email was not released earlier because prior congressional requests sought information on the formulation of CIA talking points about the attack and whether the White House was involved in drafting them.
(This story corrects paragraph 5 to say Gowdy is from South Carolina, not Pennsylvania, and inserts dropped words in paragraph 15 to read "... presidential nominee Mitt Romney's ...)
(Editing by Caren Bohan and Douglas Royalty)